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'Gotham' midseason premiere recap: Penguin's downfall begins

For The Baltimore Sun
"Gotham" recap: Is this the beginning of the end of Penguin?

Minor plot holes and repetitive themes aside, “Mad City: Ghosts” was an entertaining start to the second half of "Gotham" Season 3. Jim Gordon is still the reason everyone’s lives are ruined, another villain is brought back from the dead, and Penguin is a volatile, deranged murder. Business as usual.

We already knew the truth about Penguin, but the general public of Gotham doesn't. This seems like it's about to change, thanks to Ed slowly chipping away the facade of Penguin's public persona and any shred of mental stability he did have. Add dogged interviewer Margaret Hearst and her massive audience to the mix, and it’s a recipe for Penguin’s epic downfall.

“Gotham will see their mayor as he truly is,” Hearst warns Penguin. “Dig deep,” he replies. “I have nothing to hide.”

Oh, but he does. Penguin has his father’s ghost following him everywhere he goes, and he literally has skeletons in his closet.

And even though "Gotham’s" on a kick with bringing people back from the dead, it’s not really Penguin's father who’s haunting him. Ed enlists the help of Clayface, the Indian Hill experiment who replicates people’s faces and voices, and it fools Penguin.

“Don’t trust him,” his father’s ghost warns him. “The birthday boy.” He learned this from beyond the grave while whispering with Isabella.

That should’ve been a dead giveaway to Penguin that the person he shouldn’t trust is Ed. Penguin’s father never met Isabella, so why would he be speaking with her in the afterlife?

But Penguin doesn’t pick up on this. When he walks into city hall, he hears a group of underlings (staffers?) singing “Happy Birthday” to Tarquin, his new deputy chief of staff and Ed Nygma’s replacement. Then it clicks: Penguin's new right-hand man is the one not to be trusted!

Terrified, he speed waddles to Tarquin’s office and rummages around in his closet, where discovers his father’s corpse. How fitting that Penguin should find a skeleton in a closet right before his live interview with Hearst.

It only gets worse for Penguin from there. Tarquin walks in, and has the most unnervingly calm reaction to seeing a corpse in a bag. In typical Penguin fashion, he doesn’t let his victim answer any questions before bludgeoning him to death.

But that doesn’t stop Penguin from performing his civic duties. With a speck of blood on his face and a frenzied look in his eye, he sits down in front of the camera with Hearst and gulps water faster and more awkwardly than Marco Rubio.

My favorite part of this season has been the writers’ digs at political figures. (Don’t think we haven’t noticed, Bruno Heller.) But more than that, Robin Lord Taylor's performance as Penguin is what keeps me watching “Gotham.” It’s a shame that the writing of this show can’t match the level of acting he delivers as he contorts his face in horror, then instantly springs it back into friendly mayor mode for the interview.

The interview goes moderately well, as he narrowly dodges incriminating questions from Hearst. That is, until he sees his father’s ghost again. Penguin nearly falls over trying to get out of his chair to follow him, and stammers that the interview’s over.

“The people of Gotham and America want to know the truth” Hearst says, urging him to stay. “To hell with the people,” he says, yanking off his microphone and hobbling toward his father’s apparition.

I suspected that Penguin’s mayoral term would be brought down by a scandal that involved him bashing his constituents in front of a live audience. Oddly specific, yes, but let me explain.

Penguin’s fall from grace is a nod to "Batman Returns," in which Penguin (played by Danny DeVito) also rises to the ranks of Gotham mayor. He, too, is an awful human being who doesn’t care about the public and brags about how he “played this stinkin’ city like a harp from hell.” Batman gets a hold of the audio of Penguin saying this and plays it at a Penguin rally, destroying his political career.

But unlike “Gotham’s” darker '90s counterpart, it was a friend — not an enemy — who brought Penguin down. Ed is still heartbroken and furious that Penguin murdered Isabella. She was his one true love, and he’s not letting Penguin off easy.

“I want this to be a slow and painful death, one of a thousand deep cuts. First, we destroy his mind,” Ed says.

“Then the part I like,” Barbara chimes in, “take away his empire, and take it for ourselves.” Ed finishes with the coup de grace: “Then when this bird is broken and alone, we do the humane thing: Put him out of his misery.”

But Penguin already is alone. Sure, he has his underlings at city hall and his crooked associates, but he no longer has a loyal right-hand man like Ed or Butch or a mentor like Fish. Not to mention the only family he has is dead and/or haunting him from beyond the grave.

Penguin has alienated anyone who could keep him grounded as he loses his mind and power. In his race to the top, he forgot about surrounding himself with people to protect him from falling to the bottom. How long will it take before Penguin comes completely undone?

More “Ghost” highlights:

Best Harvey one-liner: "Why didn’t you tell me about Zsasz [and the hit he has on you]?” Harvey asks Jim.

“It’s my business, not yours,” Jim says matter-of-factly.

“Seems a little ridiculous, seeing as how I’m standing next to you most the time,” Harvey shoots back.

Most angsty voicemail greeting: “This is Edward. Leave a voicemail. Or don’t.” Is changing your voicemail what Gen Xers had to do back in the day to broadcast their ennui to their friends? Sad.

Tackiest move: Going to the funeral of the man you shot. Save your condolences card for another day, Jim. Let his loved ones grieve.

Biggest burn: “You’re the real virus, Jim. You seep into people’s lives until you destroy them,” Lee says after bursting into the GCPD precinct and insisting that Harvey arrest Jim. Rude. That’s not how you thank the man who saved your life, nor is having your mob kingpin father-in-law put a hit out on him.

But after visiting Nathaniel Barnes at Arkham and seeing how far off the deep end he had gone, Lee realizes recovery for Mario would have been hopeless. Lee heads back to Carmine, and begs him to call off the hit on Jim.

“You still love James Gordon,” Carmine says to her. Well, that, and she realized that her husband, Mario, was infected by a virus that made him a homicidal maniac, but I’m sure we’ll see Jim and Lee’s toxic romance blossom again.

Best frenemies forever: “You’re a good egg,” Zsasz tells Jim after he tells him he has an order to kill him. “Also, nice shot on Mario. Never liked him.” Does this mean we’ll have a new bromance in the mix since #nygmabblepot is no more? Or is there more to tell about Mario being jerk that we don’t know about?

Dead psycho society: Jim and Harvey are on a case about a creepy mortician who’s trying to resurrect Gotham’s favorite madman, Jerome. He has a massive following who recite Jerome’s speech word for word. I’m curious to see what chaos Jerome will cause once he’s brought back to life. Let’s hope they don’t banish him to the woods after a few episodes, like they did to Fish Mooney.

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